Report: Major PR firm warns corporate clients not to comment publicly on Alito draft

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The reaction among righties on social media to this scoop is split between two camps. Camp one: “This isn’t newsworthy. It’s basic, basic PR strategy. Of course a company shouldn’t needlessly court controversy by commenting on a draft opinion that might not even reflect the Court’s final decision.”

Camp two: “Woke corporations have finally learned their lesson. Thank you, Ron DeSantis.

Corporate America is going to find itself in quite a jam if Alito’s draft holds up and red states start passing all-out bans on abortion. Overturning Roe will be broadly unpopular and total bans will be extremely unpopular, so any business that’s inclined to protest will likely end up with a majority of the public on its side. But CEOs everywhere are watching what Disney’s gone through with DeSantis and realizing that other red-state governors with national ambitions will be eager to win favor with GOP voters by punishing them if they protest. I’d imagine that Greg Abbott in particular is keen to prove his mettle, not wanting to lose pace with DeSantis ahead of 2024. Considering how many tech companies have come to Texas in the last few years, it’s a cinch he’ll find a foil somewhere.

This report comes from leftist Judd Legum, making it an early warning that the end of Roe will be more complicated for corporate America than the “don’t say gay” debate in Florida was. There was no sustained pressure from the left on American business to step up and thwart that law. Disney’s CEO only felt obliged to speak up after the law had passed, in fact, when pro-LGBT employees complained to him. Legum’s post is all the evidence we need that red-state abortion bans will be different. He’s alerting his allies that Zeno, the PR giant that advises firms like Coke and Starbucks and takes a platitudinous liberal line on politics, hasn’t yet urged its clients to raise the alarm and rattle their sabers about financial consequences for states that ban abortion. There’ll be much more of such public notice-taking from the left of who’s speaking up and who isn’t once the Dobbs decision drops.

According to Zeno CEO Barby Siegel, the firm’s mission is to “champion the courageous to achieve something better for humankind.”

That mission is not reflected in an email sent to Zeno staff this week by Katie Cwayna, Zeno’s Executive Vice President for Media Strategy. Cwayna’s message includes “a template email to share with client contacts” regarding the leaked Supreme Court opinion which would end all constitutional protections for abortion rights. The template tells clients that “the media” and others “will look for corporations to take a stand and make their views known.” Zeno’s advice, however, is to keep quiet:

“Do not take a stance you cannot reverse, especially when the decision is not final. This topic is a textbook ’50/50′ issue. Subjects that divide the country can sometimes be no-win situations for companies because regardless of what they do they will alienate at least 15 to 30 percent of their stakeholders… Do not assume that all of your employees, customers or investors share your view.

After Legum published his post, Zeno hurriedly emailed him to clarify that the advice it gave was only supposed to apply during the first 24 hours after Alito’s draft was published. “At Zeno, we believe in equal access to healthcare for all, and a woman’s right to make decisions about her healthcare,” a spokesman told him. “At the same time, we live in a world with different opinions and different views, and we respect those differences.”

That’s nice but the left isn’t going to let them square that circle so neatly once Roe is gone and the battle over state regulation is joined. Either you believe a woman should have the right to an abortion or you’re prepared to keep quiet as states ban the practice because you respect the most absolutist pro-life view. Legum’s post might as well be titled “Boycott or be boycotted.” He’s warning CEOs not to lose their progressive nerve just because DeSantis and other governors are prepared to hit back now, as the left is prepared to hit back too.

Are they listening, though?

In private meetings and coaching sessions over the past few weeks, top business leaders have been asking a version of the same question: How can we avoid becoming the next Walt Disney Co.?

The fallout from the recent political spat between Disney and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has alarmed leaders across the corporate sphere, according to executives and their advisers, and heightened the challenges for chief executive officers navigating charged topics…

“The No. 1 concern CEOs have is, ‘When should I speak out on public issues?’ ” said Bill George, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic PLC and now a senior fellow at Harvard Business School. “As one CEO said to me, ‘I want to speak out on social issues, but I don’t want to get involved in politics.’ Which I said under my breath, ‘That’s not possible.’”

Alternate headline: “State viewpoint discrimination succeeds in chilling free speech.” Any business thrust into Disney’s position at this point, facing an issue about which conservatives are motivated but liberals are “meh,” will likely keep quiet rather than invite similar state retaliation. What makes the end of Roe intriguing as a political matter, though, is that liberals won’t be “meh.” We’ll have both parties highly motivated, with the left demanding that their allies in corporate America speak up and the right demanding that they pipe down. Someone’s going to end up disappointed.

Businesses could always try to take the popular middle ground position of supporting legal abortion early in a pregnancy but opposing it later, but unfortunately for them the activists on both sides disdain such moderation. They’ll have to choose one absolutist position or another.

I’ll leave you with this new data from Pew showing just how nuanced American opinion is about when abortion is and isn’t appropriate.